‘Chappie’ toys with a different kind of sci-fi
In a near-future Johannesburg, robots have nearly taken over the police force and have significantly lowered the crime rate. Designer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) and his head honcho, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), have made robots a success for his company. Deon’s coworker is Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), who detests the robot police and is curious about Deon’s new artificial intelligence project. Things seem to be going well for Deon until he’s captured by some gangsters (Die Antwoord) and forced to build his AI, Chappie (Sharlto Copley), to help them.
“Chappie” is the latest and most interesting film from Neil Blomkamp, whose previous works include “District 9” and “Elysium.” Blomkamp sets up a story that follows the maturation of an AI with a loaded cast that surprises in all sorts of ways. Blomkamp’s films have societal messages and force you to dig a bit deeper if you want to know what he’s really saying. As bizarre a concept as this film is, it’s definitely an interesting one that both entertains and stimulates your mind.
Neil Blomkamp grew up in South Africa, so naturally he films what he knows. Johannesburg encompasses both a flourishing and dying society. Chappie comes into this world as a fully-thinking AI. The best part is that we see Chappie develop and adapt to his surroundings like a child. He doesn’t know any better, so he says and does what those around him do. His fears, dreams and conscious actions make him a curious lead character, and you can’t help but grow attached the to robot he grows into. Watching him hurt is surprisingly upsetting.
What I got from “Chappie” is that humanity is what lies within. You can be a gangster or a technician, but what counts is the inside. Our external shells are what we choose to judge, but reveal nothing about what that person (or robot) is like. Humans are also susceptible to other humans and their environments, evidenced by how Chappie grows with the gangsters. There’s the always prevalent distrust of AI and Robots to do human work, but that sits on the back burner here. I’m a fan of what the film has to say, even if it comes across somewhat goofy sometimes.
Sharlto Copley, as Chappie, brings a stunning amount of talent to the table with his motion capture performance. I can only imagine what it would have looked like watching Copley react like a young child would to most things. The excitement and fear that he communicates with his body and voice is phenomenal, bringing Chappie to life. As funny as Chappie can be when mocking gang behavior, it’s also alarming to see how easily he is influenced.
“Chappie” is certainly better than “Elysium,” but it isn’t quite on the same level of intellect and gravity as “District 9.” Much like “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” it’s incredibly easy to get behind this non-human lead character and care about him more than any human in the film. Watching Chappie grow up is hilarious, shocking and touching.
“Chappie,” though not as great as it could be, is another step in the right direction for Blomkamp and the sci-fi genre. Interestingly enough, performances from humans were probably the weakest links in the film. Dev Patel probably emotes the most and offers the best range, but he’s nothing too special in the film. Hugh Jackman’s character is overly maniacal, but at least he’s given more to do than Sigourney Weaver, who has a total of maybe ten lines. The South African rave group Die Antwoord bring some pretty convincing characters to the film. They don’t do too much, but they definitely make an impact in the grand scheme of things. That being said, no human character really does much to wow the audience.